In mid-January, Microsoft announced the acquisition of Activision Blizzard, one of the world’s largest video game companies, for a whopping $70 billion. It is the company’s largest acquisition in its nearly 50-year history in the technology sector.
An investment that opens a window on the future: Microsoft clearly wants to further bolster its offer in the video game sector, yet it also wants to grow especially in the segment related to virtual reality, the ‘metaverse’, which it considers to be the future of the Internet. Or better said: which many insiders consider to be the future of the internet.
When we talk about the metaverse, we refer to a virtual reality in which people can meet in the form of avatars, and from there interact as if they were in the same room or place.
“Virtual reality already exists in a very advanced form in video games, particularly in ‘Shmups’ [Shoot ’em ups]”, explains Stefano Quintarelli, former MP, one of Italy’s Internet pioneers, entrepreneur, computer scientist, and also advisor to the Copernican Association.
Where the metaverse is heading
The metaverse became a topic of debate three decades ago, when Neal Stephenson published Snow Crash. That was back in 1992. Today, the metaverse is a virtual and possible world, accessible through certain online platforms and ‘virtual reality’ visors, where users can perform all kinds of activities through avatars.
The metaverse thus opens up a myriad of possibilities. This is nothing like the launch of a new social media platform or video game. It is indeed a parallel world that users can, or will, when it is more developed, access through glasses, visors, helmets and all the other tools that the tech industry will want to develop.
For Quintarelli, however, developments will go beyond total visual immersion. Rather, the metaverse will be a world in which virtual and augmented reality are intertwined. “A totally virtual environment is of little use; since a certain degree of integration with the real world is essential, unless you want to stand still with the visor on your head”, he explains. “Let’s take a work meeting, for instance: if you are only wearing a visor, you see who is in front of you but you don’t see your hands, so how do you take notes? How would you move the notepad and pen? How would you drink your coffee? I expect the main applications of the future to be somewhere between Zuckerberg’s vision of the metaverse and Microsoft’s augmented reality”.
A totally virtual environment is of little use; since a certain degree of integration with the real world is essential
Implications for the world of work are a key part of the perspectives of the metaverse: this can potentially shift the habits and customs of many people and companies, first in one sector, then in another, and subsequently in areas less compatible with this technology.
“Certainly the business meetings held today on Teams and Zoom will be much more interactive while exponentially enhancing user experience. In addition, many people who may have to live at a distance for various reasons will be able to meet in the metaverse instead of video chatting”, Quintarelli says.
Business meetings held today on Teams and Zoom will be much more interactive while exponentially enhancing user experience
The conditions for an accessible metaverse
Quintarelli’s example of meetings clearly illustrates possible developments: a virtual reality viewer, when connected optimally, provides a far more immersive experience than any videocall imaginable.
However, it will be necessary to create the conditions to make virtual reality sustainable, accessible to workers. That is why, says Quintarelli, a key step in this direction will be to ensure the interoperability of services. “I don’t use WhatsApp as a messaging service because it only allows you to talk to other people who have the same application”, he explains. “Let’s imagine I have the Zoom visor for a video conference, and then if I need to do something else, it’s not like I can change the visor and put on the one made by Zuckerberg’s company, and then change again for Apple, and so on. Interoperability will prove key to the accessible development of this technology“.
Fortunately, Quintarelli continues, “the European Union seems to be moving in this direction with the Digital Service Act. Regulators have realised that it is a value, so I believe they will not allow the creation of a closed environment in the hands of a dominant entity modelled from WhatsApp: if not open, the metaverse will remain a closed application owned by one company, rather than by all users”.
Interoperability is certainly not the only critical issue related to the future developments of the metaverse (e.g., one should think about potential vision problems arising from wearing a visor for many hours). Yet there is no need to fear a possible large-scale dependence on the metaverse, as in a science fiction novel, following the example of ‘Player One’, the novel by Ernest Cline later taken up by Steven Spielberg in his ‘Ready Player One’.
Service interoperability will prove key to the accessible development of this technology
“In the early 1980s, ‘Famiglia Cristiana’ (Christian Family) published an article about computer addiction, a danger that they said would doom us all. These are evergreen fears, and addictions exist for everything, coffee, cigarettes, and even driving a car on the motorway. Addiction is just a degeneration of a habit. A dependency on the metaverse, not unlike other things, may arise, yet that does not make the metaverse a problem”, says Quintarelli.
All new things are scary at first and it’s hard to measure up, but with time you get used to them and learn to control them too. “Just a few years ago, it was hard to imagine that someone could send as many messages by phone as we do today, but now it is a continuous exchange of short messages: the label has simply changed. Similarly, today it seems difficult to think of working in a virtual reality, but one day it will be so for everyone, or almost everyone, and it is inevitable”, says Quintarelli.
Non-Fungible Tokens and the metaverse
If the metaverse is a fast approaching destination, the expansion of the Non-Fungible Token, or NFT, market is just as visible on the horizon. And these tools seem to be linked to the very evolution of virtual reality.
NFTs are literally non-reproducible tokens, i.e. the deed and certificate of authenticity of an asset: they can be understood as an original and unique document, because it is written on a blockchain and therefore cannot be modified.
In the metaverse, NFTs make the existence of virtual assets and their ownership possible. In the case of video games, for example, NFTs protect a virtual object (think of the clothes worn by one of the characters in Fortnite or Call of Duty). Specifically on Fortnite, Balenciaga designed a new ad hoc collection for avatars, Ralph Lauren took the autumn-winter 2021 collection into digital garments to play on Roblox, and Benetton landed on Animal Crossing with a digital capsule collection.
There is already a rich and varied NFT market. However, it has not yet entered everyone’s daily routine. It will do so, almost inevitably, when the metaverse becomes a part of reality for most people: at which point every valuable asset will be represented by an NFT.
The proliferation of Non-Fungible Tokens and the expanding metaverse are, in short, above all an opportunity to do everything that with the distances, tools and options of the real world seems complicated.
The metaverse is destined to become part of the technologies we use, like electricity, the Internet and smartphones
Quintarelli further explains that “virtual reality means that you can interact with other people at a very great distance, as if you were in the same environment, which is different from looking at yourself on a screen: this ensures better interactions between people while also rendering a better perception of the surrounding space. In the future, the metaverse will also allow us to visit places we have never been”, says Quintarelli.
It is not a question of having a positive or negative opinion about it: these are inevitable developments. “The metaverse is destined to become part of the technologies we use, like electricity, the Internet and smartphones” concludes Quintarelli. Society adapts to make the best use of these tools. These rules are not there at the beginning, but they then emerge: nowadays our phones potentially make us always available, but we have thought about a law on the right to disconnect. I remember when I was a kid, when I first started hanging out on the webs, hacking was not a crime. You could go and dig around other people’s computers but it wasn’t even a crime. It is an important technology and it will come“.
When? “It’s as if we were in the late 1980s compared to the explosion of the Internet, which then came in 2001 with ADSL. Before 2001, however, there were just a handful of us”.